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Debian is a very successful operating system, which is pervasive in our digital lives more than people often imagine or are aware of. A few data points will suffice to make this clear. At the time of writing Debian is the most popular GNU/Linux variant among web servers: according to <ulink url="http://w3techs.com/">W3Techs</ulink>, more than 10% of the web is Debian-powered. Think about it: how many web sites would have you missed today without Debian? Onto more fascinating deployments, Debian is the operating system of choice on the International Space Station. Have you been following the work of ISS astronauts, maybe via the social network presence of NASA or other international organizations? Both the work in itself and the posts about it have been made possible by Debian. Countless companies, universities, and public administrations rely on Debian daily for their operations, delivering services to millions of users around the world... and its orbit!
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Preface
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Debian is a very successful operating system, which is pervasive in our digital lives more than people often imagine or are aware of. A few data points will suffice to make this clear. At the time of writing Debian is the most popular GNU/Linux variant among web servers: according to <ulink url="http://w3techs.com/">W3Techs</ulink>, more than 10% of the web is Debian-powered. Think about it: how many web sites would have you missed today without Debian? Onto more fascinating deployments, Debian is the operating system of choice on the International Space Station. Have you been following the work of ISS astronauts, maybe via the social network presence of NASA or other international organizations? Both the work in itself and the posts about it have been made possible by Debian. Countless companies, universities, and public administrations rely on Debian daily for their operations, delivering services to millions of users around the world... and its orbit!
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But Debian is much more than an operating system, no matter how complex, featureful, and reliable such a system could be. Debian is a vision of the freedoms that people should enjoy in a world where more and more of our daily activities depend on software. Debian is born from the cardinal Free Software idea that people should be in control of their computers, and not the other way around. People with enough software knowledge should be able to dismantle, modify, reassemble and share with others all the software that matters to them. It doesn't matter if the software is used for frivolous activities like posting pictures of kittens on the Web, or for potentially life-threatening tasks such as driving our cars and powering the medical devices which cure us — and Debian is used in all of the above scenarios; you should control it. People without in-depth software knowledge should enjoy those freedoms too: they should be able to delegate to people of their choice, people they trust, the audit or modification of software-based devices on their behalf.
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In the quest for the control of people over machines, Free operating systems play a fundamental role: you cannot be in full control of a computer device if you do not control its operating system. This is where Debian's main ambition comes from: producing the best, entirely Free operating system. For more than 20 years now, Debian has both developed a Free operating system and promoted a vision of Free Software around it. In so doing, Debian has set a very high bar for software freedom advocates around the world. Debian's decisions on matters of software licensing, for example, are routinely looked to by international standard organizations, governments, and other Free Software projects, when deciding if something should be considered “free enough” or not.
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But this political vision is not yet enough to explain Debian's uniqueness. Debian is also a very peculiar social experiment, strongly attached to its independence. Think for a moment of other mainstream Free Software distributions, or even of popular <emphasis>proprietary</emphasis> operating systems. Chances are that you can associate each of them with a large company that is either the main development force behind the project, or at the very least the steward of all its non-development activities. Debian is different. Within the Debian Project volunteers pack on themselves the responsibilities of all the activities that are needed to keep Debian alive and kicking. The variety of those activities is stunning: from translations to system administration, from marketing to management, from conference organization to artwork design, from bookkeeping to legal issues... not to mention software packaging and development! Debian contributors take care of all of these.
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As a first consequence of this radical form of independence, Debian needs and relies on a very diverse community of volunteers. Any skill in any of the above areas, or others you can imagine, can be invested into Debian and will be used to improve the project. A second consequence of Debian independence is that Debian's choices can be trusted not to be driven by the commercial interests of specific companies — interests that we have no guarantee will always be aligned with the goal of promoting people's control over machines, as too many recent examples in the tech news testify.
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One last aspect contributes to Debian's uniqueness: the way in which the social experiment is run. Despite the folklore of being bureaucratic, decision making in Debian is in fact highly distributed. There exist clearly defined areas of responsibility within the project. People in charge of those areas are free to drive their own boat. As long as they keep up with the quality requirements agreed upon by the community, no one can tell them what to do or how to do their job. If you want to have a say on how something is done in Debian, you need to put yourself on the line and be ready to take the job on your shoulders. This peculiar form of meritocracy — which we sometimes call <emphasis>do-ocracy</emphasis> — is very empowering for contributors. Anyone with enough skills, time, and motivation can have a real impact on the direction the project is taking. This is testified by a population of about 1 000 official members of the Debian Project, and several thousands of contributors world-wide. It is no wonder that Debian is often credited as the largest community-driven Free Software project in existence.

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